The game is FTL. I’m on a good run, boasting a well-trained crew of 6, all different species, and advanced upgrades for my ship including a cloning chamber in my med-bay. Then, halfway through the Sixth sector, a hostile one, I run out of fuel. My SOS beacon draws pirates and a terrible battle ensues. My hull is close to collapsing, most of the crew are dead, and heavy rocket fire is destroying all the systems on the ship. I deal enough damage to the enemy vessel to force their retreat, and then, utterly without hope, I throw open the airlocks to release what oxygen remains and provide my beloved crew a dignified death.
Just as Ryan the Mantis is about to watch his own body multiplicatively balloon in size due to space exposure, and release me, the player, from enduring the sick death parade that is FTL, something bizarre happens. A clone of Kadreal, my starting human captain, suddenly appears in the med bay, born into a burning ship totally devoid of oxygen. As his own breath crystallizes in his respiratory tract, he sees Ryan -- rather, Ryan’s clone -- crawl out of the same birthing machine he just did … and the cycle goes on. And on. My crew will never be free from the torture of birth and death. And devoid of fuel, my ship will be forever lost in drift. FTL: Hell in Space.
I like stories told this way, because in spite of putting you through the same hell again and again (as in films such as Moon, Triangle or As Above So Below) -- or more accurately, putting you through similar hells again and again -- telling stories of hell through a video game offer the possibility that any attempt could be the one that sets you free.
Ever since The Binding of Isaac came out, I’ve identified Roguelike as my favourite type of game. Roguelikes provide an infinitely variable arcadey experience which doesn`t just invite, but challenges you to even hope to reach the end in the course of one, precious life; the tension drawn between the randomized continuity of gameplay obstacles and the unchanging, overarching goal strikes a perfect note. You don’t hit checkpoints in Roguelike games; you just die, and try again -- but it’s not even trying again, because you’re not playing the same game anymore. You’re trying something new. Unlike storymode rail shooters, 70-hour RPGs, or grand RTS games, which are technically identical experiences for everyone who plays them, random generation gives you something numerically unique; nobody else will ever have played the exact run that you did. You will certainly never play the same run twice. There is no way to cheat a well-designed Roguelike, no optimal strategy or easy way out. The only way to make it through to the end is to build an excellent, practiced, probabilistic model inside your head of how a dungeon generally ought to go. You can only beat these games by really knowing them, and efficiently dealing with them from one obstacle to the next. This agreement between designer and player really appeals to me.
Roguelikes universally present a journey through hell. I don’t mean this in regards to the challenge or frustration of individual obstacles, or even the pain of suddenly dying to a low-difficulty obstacle, deep into a promising runthrough; what I refer to when I call Roguelike a hellish experience, is the perpetual futility that overarches all playthroughs. The player (or I should say, player-character) is doomed to relive the same mistakes, suffer the same plights, regret the same flubs, over and over again -- what better definition of Eternity in Hell could there be? Every new run is just another opportunity to be thwarted by familiar foes. One never necessarily sees the same room twice in these purgatories, and yet recognizes all of them in a chilling deja vu.
I mean hell, in the game Rogue Legacy, you pay the toll to the ferryman of the underworld every time you (re)enter the dungeon. Unequivocally, whatever the player-character believes his mission to be, he is just returning to Hell, again and again, to relive his past errors, and hopefully, if ever, to redeem them in the end. The hope of redemption, I believe, is what sets a videogame in Hell (Roguelikes), apart from a film in Hell (horror movies). A horror film or book must have its hero perpetually living through the same pain, never to be redeemed. Even if, at the end of the story, the hero is freed from punishment, she must start over again for the next viewer or reader. in Roguelike, though, there is hope. The imposition of player’s freedom of choice allows each story to go differently. Maybe some players put the game down after awhile, never reaching the coveted FINAL ROOM. Maybe some are lucky or skilled enough to beeline to the end very quickly. And still others strive through, building up their skills and acumen, and fight their way back out into the overworld.
Apart from other Roguelikes, Rogue Legacy emphasizes not just the uniqueness of each attempt, but the unique array of cumulative gains from repeat attempts. One toon’s runthrough could increase the HP of all future successors, giving them a better chance at pushing even further through the dungeon. After a few dozen generations, I’ve created an abundant genealogy which allows me to clear far more rooms on average than I could at first, earning even more resources to improve stats. You can even prevent the dungeon from re-randomizing if you want to attempt it again with the next generation.
In this way, the game always has you facing forward. On death, you aren’t thinking to yourself “Well, that was all for nothing...” -- instead you’re thinking to yourself, “Ah man, my kid is gonna do way better than me!” In contrast to the unpredictable patterns of dungeon and character randomization is a whole suite of tools to counteract them. Good games (especially Roguelikes) leverage randomness against planning and skill.